I've heard the saying "You can't judge a book by its cover" all my life and always nodded my head, agreeing that first impressions are not always accurate. But that has never stopped me from having those first impressions and still being impacted by them.
In traveling around the country talking to districts about how to observe teachers accurately, objectively and fairly, we often talk about bias, and "first impressions" can often become biases. My classic first impression bias is "This teacher is wearing a tie. He must be a good teacher." Alas, I am proven wrong, time after time. I have not yet found a true correlation between teacher dress and effective teaching. And yet....I still have that tinge of first impression bias when I see the tie on the male teacher.
As I said last week, our latest foster Lab, Buddy, is one beautiful animal but also a bit strong-willed. We knew it was time to begin letting folks come see him and find out if there was a "love connection" -- I was beginning to get really close to him and the longer we keep a foster, the tougher it is to let go.
The way the system works is this: we put the dog out on a dog-a-log (yes, she really said dog-a-log), approved adopters can check out the log and call on the dogs in which they have an interest. As beautiful as Buddy is, he began getting calls right away, despite his 95-pound frame. A couple wanted to come visit but said they had dinner and theater tickets for the weekend and maybe we could do it next week. First impression---get your priorities straight. If you want the dog, you will come visit even if it isn't convenient. The next folks that called already had two dogs at home; one was a puppy. First impression---why do you want to adopt a dog when you just got a new puppy? You likely can "argue" with my first impressions, combatting them with good reasons to not let my first impressions cloud my judgement. But that is exactly what they are---first impressions. They don't often have "reason" behind them, instead they just are. So, after a few phone calls, I received a call from a couple. They said they were much older but didn't want an older dog because they still wanted the dog to be fairly active. They both sounded elderly, and the woman admitted she used a cane and a walker. My first impression: They won't be able to handle a dog like Buddy, who is big and controlling (even though he doesn't pull on his leash at all).
And yet....when this couple came to see Buddy, from the moment they got out of their truck, Buddy's tail couldn't seem to stop wagging. It was if he knew he had found his forever home the instant he saw them. Couple that with the fact that when they came in the house, she sat down on the floor and buried her face in Buddy's fur and let him kiss her all over, talking to him like she had loved him for years. They left with Buddy yesterday. He was sitting pretty on a nest of blankets and pillows they had piled into what used to be a backseat of their truck. He leaned his head out the window to give me one last kiss (an enormous lap of the tongue across my entire face) and gave me a look that seemed to say, "I sure am glad you didn't follow your first impression."
I think we owe it to people, especially teachers whom we observe, to be as objective and bias-free as we can. While it may not be possible to eliminate our biases entirely, we need to leave them at the door when we walk in to observe.
Just for today, let's be conscious of our biases and first-impressions and not let them take root in our actions.
Every time I get the chance to work in a school district and talk with teachers and administrators about their work, the subject of trust and relationships inevitably comes up. I suspect it is because this is such a critical time in the lives of educators---new evaluation systems, new ways of rating teachers, etc. Never has the issue of trusting relationships been so important.
Teachers often say how much they appreciate objective and unbiased feedback, free from opinion and interpretation on the part of the observer. Getting that feedback is actually welcomed, as long as the feedback is given in such a way that it is palatable to the ear.
My husband and I do Labrador Retriever Rescue work. We foster Labs who have been deserted, turned in to the pound or who were strays. We rescue them, give them a foster home for a few days, weeks, or months until they are "adoptable" by an approved adopter. We've had three dogs so far in our short time of volunteering with this organization, but this guy is the one who proves the tenet that "Relationships matter". He came from a broken home. The couple who had him got a divorce and each tried to get back at the other via this dog. The husband gave him to another family, only to have the ex-wife come get him and take him to the pound. The good news is: the pound called the Rescue and next thing we knew, this 92 pound love was part of our home.
All was fine until we tried to put some medicine in his ears. All of a sudden, we heard a low, menacing growl. Yikes! I thought. We can't have a 92-pound moose growling at us. He growled until we gave up and said, "Forget it. We won't put medicine on you." But after consulting a behaviorist, we discovered that by giving up and giving in to the growling, we were saying, "We don't care enough to give him what he needs". We also were inherently saying, "We're giving up". The behaviorist taught us some really great techniques that didn't eliminate the growling entirely but have helped him relax a bit with the application of the medicine he needs. What I really noticed, however, was the change over the last three days in this big guy's attitude towards us. Where he started out almost looking downcast and depressed, he now looks into our eyes to get feedback (am I doing okay?). Where he started out growling for minutes on end when we tried to apply the meds, he now starts to growl, accepts the correction, then after the application, lays his head in my lap. What made the difference? The relationship. It matters.
Just for today, perhaps try to remember how much the relationship matters. If the relationship is strained or non-existent, the feedback and correction are less likely to have the desired effect.
Dave and I had the pleasure of taking a weeklong vacation this week to Maui. Beautiful trip, so far, complete with whale watching (or more accurately, whale-waiting), listening to waves crashing on the beach, taking a driving trip around the island on a trek to get what the guidebook said was the “best banana bread on the planet” (may very well be the truth---it melts in our mouth!), and eating at some really great restaurants. But in order to get to paradise, we had to first travel a few times zones to get here, and this trip required us to change airlines at LAX. I should have thought through the amount I packed, because after trekking from one terminal to another with our suitcases and golf bags, we were exhausted. But finally, we made it to the new terminal and new airline check in spot, where we had to re-check in to get our boarding passes and check in our luggage bound for Hawaii. The problem was, there were no ticket counters whatsoever, only kiosks which consisted of computer stands at which you could check in. We figured that out without a hitch but then were stymied about where to take our luggage. We were directed two different places as the golf clubs are “oversized” and someone forgot to put yellow stickers on them that are supposed to show the baggage folks that our luggage had been scanned. So after feeling like we were run-around the check-in area for 20 minutes, I had to ask the one gal who was there to assist folks who got confused. “How do you think this type of check in area works versus the traditional ticket counter?” I asked. She started laughing (which is never really a good sign, do you think?) and answered, “Well, honestly, I haven’t been here long enough to know what it was like with a ticket counter, but I sure hear a lot of people complain about the way it is now.” She continued, “I think people get frustrated because they see there aren’t people waiting to help them and they automatically become helpless. They can’t do ANYthing on their own.” I said, “I wonder if they just want to feel there will be someone there to support them.” She pointed at me, nodded, and said, “That’s exactly what it is.”
We made it through the circus that was that check-in area. But it sure made me think about what teachers want from their supervisors, especially in a time of new evaluation systems popping up all over the country. The teachers struggling with learning a new way of being observed and evaluated just want to feel there is someone there to support them. The research I did for my dissertation a few years ago bore out this theory. Of all the characteristics, actions and behaviors the administrator could do or possess, Support for Teachers was in the top 3. “I just want to know my principal has my back”, “I just want to be supported without being thrown under the bus” and “I need to know he is there for me” were common anecdotal comments I read from the survey research. Many teachers with whom I have worked do not need 24/7 help. They don’t need someone breathing down their neck in order to teach. But, they need to know that if they have a question or concern, there is someone there that can help in a pinch, so they are not flailing in the breeze (or in the middle of LAX).
Perhaps we need to examine how we can provide the combination of assistance and autonomy for teachers, in order to strike the perfect balance that is “just right” support for teachers. We can be better equipped to “fly safely and comfortably”, then.